A bold move into the Jazz Age

February 18, 2005

First produced in the mid-1980s, Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" lends itself to adaptation. After all, Hampton himself adapted the play from Choderlos de Laclos' novel and then went on to win an Oscar for best adaptation for "Dangerous Liaisons." A subsequent film, "Cruel Intentions," adapted the subject matter to feature teens in the previously adult roles.

In his production at the Blank Theatre's 2nd Stage, director Daniel Henning once again proves the piece's malleability in a boldly revisionist and mostly successful staging. The most daring change lies in the updating, from the late 1700s to the late 1920s. Like their 18th century counterparts, the French aristocrats in this Jazz Age version are corrupt dilettantes who have too much money and time on their hands.

A genius of seduction, Le Vicomte de Valmont (David Starzyk) particularly delights in despoiling virtue. Valmont and his former lover Le Marquise de Merteuil (Robin Riker) vent their penchants for depravity in a twisted amatory game of one-upmanship. Initially playful, their contest takes a deadly turn when Valmont falls in love with the upright La Présidente de Tourvel (Ginger Williams).

A handsome man, Starzyk's winning seducer takes a very different tack from John Malkovich's vulpine film portrayal. Perfectly balanced opponents, he and the elegant Riker take full advantage of their opportunities, both comedic and dramatic. Irene Roseen gives an elegant performance as Valmont's wise elderly aunt, while Annie Abrams delights as a slack-jawed convent girl whose dalliance with Valmont takes place under the nose of her worldly mother (amusing Dana Peterson).

Although he has a nice naturalistic quality, Allen Evangelista is too school-boyish to resonate as Merteuil's new lover. And Henning has difficulty melding his actors' varying styles, which include trained classical and underplayed Method. Despite missteps, this is a worthy outing with lots of style, not to mention some sizzling scenes guaranteed to leave you fanning yourself with your program.

--F. Kathleen Foley

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses," 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 27. $25. (323) 661-9827. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

'Knights' engaged in a grim crusade

It is not a milestone we celebrate during Black History Month: The 1913 testimony of Jim Conley, a janitor in Atlanta, is reckoned to stand as the first time a black man's word sent a white man to the gallows.

How could this happen in the Jim Crow South? Because the defendant, factory owner Leo Frank, "is not a white man; he's a Jew," as one reporter puts it to another in Jesse Waldinger's courtroom docudrama "The Knights of Mary Phagan."

Frank's notorious trial and lynching for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan have inspired several dramatizations, including the musical "Parade." Waldinger, himself a lawyer, takes a purely evidentiary approach, leaving the default courtroom setting only to cover details relevant to the case. But the complicated resonances of this disgraceful episode make the play, now in a powerful, unfussy staging at Theatre 68, almost unavoidably meaty.

As Frank, Michael Tower conveys a sputtering incomprehension at the Kafka-esque nightmare he's in. Director Scott Mlodzinski puts chattering extras in the gallery and behind the audience, to whom a sneering prosecutor (Dick DeCoit) shamelessly plays for cheers.

Frank's lawyer (an extraordinary Chuck Hoyes) appeals to the same mob, and to us, with the barely concealed despair of a reasonable man facing utter unreason, and Stephen Reynolds' harrumphing judge captures the willful blindness of an arbiter who refuses to admit that he's running a circus.

As that unfortunate pioneer Jim Conley, Tegan Summer is chillingly cool-headed and defiant — a tragic figure who may have escaped the hangman himself but inadvertently advanced intolerance in the South: Among the legacies of the Leo Frank case would be a virulent resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

--Rob Kendt

"The Knights of Mary Phagan," 68 Cent Theatre Company at Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 20. $20. (323) 467-6688. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Forgetting the reason for frenzy

When Floyd Collins became trapped while exploring Kentucky's vast Sand Cave in 1925, his plight incited media frenzy. The national furor grew until it forgot the fame-seeking caver at its center. That impasse enfolds "Floyd Collins" in its Los Angeles premiere at West Coast Ensemble. Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's 1996 chamber musical mines this true story via iconoclastic means.

Director Richard Israel exploits them with spry creativity. After a recurring silhouette motif, Lisa D. Katz's wintry lighting spots guitar-picking Jewell Estes (David Nadeau). A group prologue swells in folk harmony under Johanna Kent's music direction.

Floyd (Bryce Ryness) appears, literally overhead. He spans Evan A. Bartoletti's wood-peg set in a virtuoso opener of mimed spelunking and echo duets (sound by Cricket Meyers). Its ending finds Floyd prone, pinned downstage.

Thereafter, "Floyd Collins" careens between Floyd's mind and the hubbub above, driven by reporter Skeets Miller (David Kaufman) and Floyd's brother, Homer (Stef Tovar). Their unstable sister, Nellie (Dana Reynolds), reaches Floyd through her dreams. By the finale, where costumer Alayna Marie Miller drops Walker Evans drab for summery pastels, Floyd enters history.

Ryness, sinewy and full-throated, is amazing. Tovar mirrors his fervor, while Reynolds offers simplicity and dulcet singing. Kaufman is impressive as the source of the sensation. This peaks at the showstopper, "Is That Remarkable?" with newshounds Brian Weir, Denny Downs and Alex Kaufman dashing off Cate Caplin's pencil-and-pad choreography. Larry Lederman's father and Andrea Covell's stepmother brace flinty voices with sage choices. Michael Bonnabel, Keith Borden and Jerry Kernion complete a rock-solid roster.

The abiding flaw: Guettel's shimmering songs propel, whereas Landau's gravelly book impedes. Connoisseurs may savor Israel's cagey excavation. The clash of score and libretto remains tectonic.

--David C. Nichols

"Floyd Collins," West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3. $35. (323) 525-0022 or Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Characters gather around Chekhov

For any contemporary playwright, coming to grips with the legacy of Anton Chekhov is a challenge akin to scaling Mt. Everest. Making that struggle the overt focus of his new play, "The Chekhov Machine," French-Romanian dramatist Matei Visniec creates a surreal, absurdist limbo in which the dying Chekhov encounters characters from each of his plays.

Along the way, Chekhov's works are deconstructed and reenvisioned from a sardonic perspective closer to the existential landscapes of Samuel Beckett than the author's signature naturalistic tableaux (think of a Cubist rendering of a Vermeer painting).

In its debut at Open Fist Theatre, "The Chekhov Machine" proves a mixed bag: an atmospheric, edgy and often provocative journey whose limitations nevertheless become obvious in comparison with its source of inspiration.

At its best, the play's fanciful confrontations between Chekhov (Bjorn Johnson) and his creations link the artist and his work with themes of mystery and misery in the Russian soul. In one particularly powerful scene, the tuberculosis-stricken writer receives guidance from "Ivanov's" Sarah (Michelle Haner), who died of the same disease; during their exchange, dark stains on the wall above his deathbed glow an angry red.

Other scenes are laced with sharp-edged satire: Chekhov giving a pep talk to the suicidal frustrated writer (Dylan Maddalena) from "The Seagull"; the feuding soldiers from "The Three Sisters" (Joseph Hulser, Benjamin Burdick) philosophizing over a game of cards before their fatal duel; and of course the sisters themselves (Amelia Borella, Kristin Mochnick, Elizabeth A. Griffin) chirping in unison about their imminent departure for Moscow. A truly wacky sequence features Bobik (Weston Blakesley), the infant butt of jokes in "Sisters"), all grown up and still the butt of jokes in his meaningless hotel job.

Sometimes the characters are stretched almost beyond recognition to serve a point — a jovial, Flastaffian Uncle Vanya (Adrian Sparks) imprisoned for shooting his brother-in-law is a direct contradiction to Chekhov's tragicomic failure who couldn't even shoot straight.

"The Chekhov Machine" is pure meta-theater that could not stand on its own without familiarity with its source. Recognizing this, director Florinel Fatulescu has included short, well-played excerpts from Chekhov's plays. The added clarity comes with a downside in reminding us how much richness and depth these characters lose when stripped of the rhythms and nuances of their original contexts.

--Philip Brandes

"The Chekhov Machine," Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 5. $18; Sundays pay-what-you-can. (323) 882-6912 or Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Not just 'Ruthless' but overbearing

"If you cry, the audience won't," the overbearing talent manager Sylvia St. Croix (Kevin Beaty) reminds her precocious young charge, Tina (Rachel Hirschfeld), at one point in the similarly overbearing "Ruthless! The Musical." One wishes librettist Joal Paley and composer Marvin Laird had learned the corollary axiom: If you push for laughs, we won't laugh.

There's some admirable wit and snap in director Stephen Knoll-Gentry's brassy revival at the Hudson Theatre but not enough to overcome the show's central spectacle of waste: Eight criminally overqualified actresses, left to mug, belt and screech through a flimsy, self-conscious exercise in low camp, padded out mercilessly past the two-hour mark.

In this convoluted fable of cutthroat competition, it's not just mom Judy (the powerhouse Jayme Armstrong), daughter Tina and manager Sylvia who vie for the spotlight. Nearly everyone onstage — including a drama teacher (Cindy Warden) and a star's assistant, significantly named Eve (Merry Simkins) — is aching for stardom and bursting to sing about it.

Even a crusty drama critic (Carol Woodbury) gets a number, "I Hate Musicals," a hollow dis' of amplified English imports (it's hard to ignore that even in the 99-seat Hudson, the actors are also amplified).

Knoll-Gentry's sets and Karen Knoll's costumes are delightfully tacky. And conductor Bruce Coyle keeps the backstage band bouncing along to Laird's endlessly showtuney score.

But, to use two of the show's key reference points: These bad seeds don't come up roses.


"Ruthless! The Musical," Golden Afternoon Productions, LLC at the Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. $22. (323) 960-7785. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.